Madison Smartt Bell begins the first session of English 306 at Goucher College by drawing two curved, symmetrical objects. He renders these deflated ovals with precise, exacting strokes.
His students, however, don't have a clue what he's trying to show them.
"Lungs?" is the first tentative guess.
"Two chili peppers?"
"A pair of squashes?"
The students are stumped. They know the objects must somehow be related to the ostensible subject at hand, creative writing. But until they solve the mystery of the ellipses, there will be no talk of writing, not overtly. Bell has another point he wants to make first.
Once their teacher does address the topic of writing, it's kind of a downer. And not just in the usual, first-day-of-class way, with the syllabus and all those boilerplate rules about deadlines and papers and attendance. (Only one unexcused absence per student, Bell warns, and it better be a creative one. It seems all the stories here will be held to high narrative standards.)
No, it's the offhand speech that Bell delivers later, in the second half of the class, that should make the more sensitive types run to the registrar, screaming for a major in, say, business administration.
It's a speech he's given again and again, one he has summarized in his book on writing, Narrative Design: A Writer's Guide to Structure. It's a speech he can be guaranteed to give this fall, when another set of bright faces is arrayed before him. It is a speech he cannot give often enough.
The writing workshop, Bell likes to explain to students, is a relatively new institution. It began in the 1950s at Iowa University and Stanford, still both tops in the field. Today, there are more than 300 programs under an umbrella organization known as The Associated Writing Programs. Bell has spent his adult life studying and teaching in some of the best -- Princeton, Hollins College, Johns Hopkins University and, yes, even Iowa.
Along the way, he has done what every writing student presumably wants to do, produced a critically acclaimed body of serious, literary work. He's been nominated for a National Book Award, anointed by the literary magazine Granta as one of the best young writers in the United States. If anyone can be a poster boy for the writing workshop, it's Bell. He even looks the part, with his longish hair, retro necktie and Harley Davidson jewelry. He is at once hip and authoritative, a rebel with a cause.
But writing workshops are inherently flawed, Bell will tell his students. They are Skinnerian boxes that condition students to favor groupthink. Students end up writing for a dozen-plus editors -- their fellow students and their instructor. Burnout ensues. Writing workshops can mutate into cults -- literal cults.
Ultimately, those who succeed -- and Bell estimates only 5 to 10 percent of writing workshop students can expect to publish in any meaningful way -- will ignore the helpful comments, the constructive criticism, and stick to their own vision. The writing workshop can be paradoxical at best, soul-destroying at its worst, preparing students for nothing but angst and self-doubt and complete confusion.
So welcome to English 306, a writing workshop taught by the co-director of Goucher's undergraduate writing program. Bell shares that job -- and the office, and, not incidentally, his life -- with Elizabeth Spires, a poet who is as well-known and celebrated in her field as Bell is in his. Together, the two have presided over the slow maturation of a program with some remarkable success stories, from accomplished novelists to prize-winning poets and short-story writers.
In the two decades since Spires first arrived here, the Goucher program has expanded, becoming a reason to choose the school. Five years ago, then-17-year-old Jenn Crowell, a written novel under her belt, came to Goucher because she was persuaded that Bell took her writing as seriously as she did. Two years ago, a large alumnae gift further enhanced Goucher's standing by creating the Kratz Center for Creative Writing, an endowment that brings distinguished writers to campus as teachers and speakers. Officially, Bell is the center's director, but he sees that job as another one he shares with Spires.
Come to think of it -- those shapes on the blackboard, which clearly have some relationship to one another, could represent Bell and Spires. Not their personal relationship, a promise has been made that this will not be that kind of story. This is not going to be about who makes dinner, and who picks up their daughter at school, and whether they run around the house reading their work to each other. ("Oh God, no," Beth Spires groans at the very thought of such an article, such a relationship.)